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April 7, 2005

Holding hands

A recent visitor was talking about how impressed she was with the open-mindedness of Ethiopian society. It was nice to hear. But what what precisely did she mean?

Well, she meant just how open-minded it was about homosexuality. You could walk down any street and see men walking in couples hand in hand. There were men holding hands, men leaning on each other, arms draped round each other's shoulders. And no one gave them a second look.

It was an easy mistake to make. If you see two men holding hands in the UK or the US, it is a reasonable assumption to make that they are gay.

Here, of course, it means no such thing. Men hold hands in Ethiopia in the same way that they drunkenly punch each other on the shoulder in pubs in Britain. It is a casual expression of mateyness (spelling?). Nothing more.

It is ironic that this acceptance of public displays of male affection does not actually go along with an acceptance of homosexuality. People I've spoken to about it in Addis tend to have two attitudes on the subject.

The first is that they just don't think about it very much. One Ethiopian woman with a fairly senior job in an NGO (translation: non governmental organisation - i.e. a charity) out here assured me homosexuality was a foreign import. There was no such thing as a naturally gay Ethiopian. If any Ethiopians were gay, she said, it was a condition they had "caught" from visiting foreigners.

The other attitude I have come across it straight-out hostility. The clearest example of this came in an editorial in The Addis Tribune, the country's oldest English-language weekly. It's headline said it all - "An abomination". I can't link to it because, for some reason, the paper has removed it from its website. But you can guess its contents. Also missing is the storm of correspondence it caused on the Tribune's letters page. Opinion was divided. Letters from expatriate Ethiopians in the US and Europe condemned the editorial. Letters from Ethiopians in Ethiopia were fully supportive.

Given that level of unashamed hostility, it is perhaps no surprise that the Yahoo! Groups page dedicated to Gay Ethiopians urges caution with the message: PLEASE DO NOT POST,REAL NAMES,PHONE NUMBERS,GAY SPOTS OR HANGOUTS IN ADDIS OR OTHER PARTS OF ETHIOPIA.

Posted by aheavens at April 7, 2005 5:56 AM